GREENSBORO – There is a particular newspaper clipping North Carolina A&T men’s basketball coach Cy Alexander keeps by his side these days.
During 2000-01 season, after his S.C. State Bulldogs were coming off of a MEAC Championship the prior season, they got off to a 4-8 start. That team rebounded to start 7-0 in the conference on their way to a 19-13 overall record and 14-4 mark in the MEAC.
It is that memory that gives him solace after the Aggies endured another tough loss, this time a 66-63 loss at the hands of Georgia Southern at Corbett Sports Center Saturday afternoon. Eagles guard Jelani Hewitt did most of the damage, scoring 19 of his 23 points in the second half. It was Hewitt’s two free throws with 15 seconds remaining that gave the Eagles a three-point lead.
As was typical all afternoon, the Aggies were given a few more chances at an eventual victory. After senior Lamont Middleton’s 3-pointer went long, sophomore forward Bruce Beckford grabbed the Aggies’ 28th offensive board of the game. He stepped back for a three that also went long, dropping the Aggies to 3-10 with their fifth straight loss.
“I’m just very disappointed right now in how we played,” said Alexander. “I’m not satisfied with our physical or mental toughness or our ability to execute in the clutch. If we’re going to turn this thing around we’ve got to understand every possession counts…every shot, every defensive maneuver counts. Three out of five possessions ain’t good enough to be plugged in. Four out of five are not good enough – seven out of nine. It’s got to be 10 out of 10. That’s what we’re trying to get these guys to understand.”
The Aggies didn’t shoot the ball well all game, finishing the contest by hitting just 21 of 72 shots (29.4 percent). But their 16 offensive rebounds in the first half helped them maintain a lead. The Aggies led by as many as nine in the first half, but saw that lead dwindled to three, 31-28, at the half thanks to two Brian Holmes free throws.
GSU (7-7) then opened the second half with two 3-pointers to tie the game at 34. Angel Matias’ free throw with 16:04 remaining in the game gave the Eagles a 35-34 advantage, which was their first lead since the 16:29 mark of the first half. The Eagles never trailed again despite a Middleton layup that tied the game at 42 with 12:40 to play. GSU responded with an 8-2 run that started with a Hewitt three and ended with a Tre Bussey 3-pointer.
The Eagles lead extended to as many as seven as Holmes knocked down another three to give GSU a 55-48 lead with 7:50 to play. The lead was still seven after two Hewitt free throws made it 64-57 with three minutes remaining. But A&T had one more run left. Middleton made three out of four free throws over the next minute to cut the lead to four. Beckford got the Aggies another possession after rebounding a Hewitt miss.
A&T center Bryan Akinkugbe brought the Corbett crowd to its feet when he rebounded a Middleton miss, was fouled on the play and put the second-chance point in the basket for a 3-point play to cut the lead to 64-63. But Hewitt’s two free throws proved to be enough in the end.
“I hope they will respond to the things we’re saying and trying to teach,” said Alexander. “It’s a long season. The good thing is – even being 3-10 – we’re still (0-0) in the conference. That’s the one thing that keeps me sane. That after January 11, we got a chance to be 1-0.”
Middleton led the Aggies with 25 points. Beckford added 11 points and nine rebounds, while Jeremy Underwood finished with 11. Senior guard Richaud Pack saw his consecutive streak of scoring double figures come to an end at 12 games as he finished with eight.
A&T returns to action on Saturday, January 4 when they travel down the road to Charlotte to face the Charlotte 49ers at 7 p.m. Conference play opens for the Aggies on January 11 at Bethune-Cookman.